“I think…” Selma talked, licking the chestnut puree off her spoon with pleasure “Hanukkah is really great!”.
“I also think Hanukkah is great,” said Aleksandar getting annoyed, “But Bogdan cleans his boots well and leaves them in front of the door for Saint Nicholas and the next day there is a present for him in the boot, if he was a good boy.”
“Well, all right, that is also nice,” his mother said, preparing another spoon of chestnut puree for Selma. Forming a round mouthful big enough and small enough for her little mouth. “And a lot of Serbs celebrate Saint Nicholas day as slava . So does Aunt Zora…Do you remember Aunt Zora Hercog? As a matter of fact, her married name is Branković now,” Aleksandar’s mother looked at her children inquisitively for a while and then continued, “Aunt Zora is married to a Serb, so she celebrates Saint Nicholas day too. Yet, she also pays visits to her father’s family for Hanukkah!”
“And she gets her Hanukkah gelt twice!” Selma concluded, excited.
“A Saint Nicholas present is not called Hanukkah gelt!” Aleksandar corrected her.
“What is it called then?” asked Selma.
“I don’t know…a present, I suppose?” Aleksandar mused, taking a big spoonful of chestnut puree.
They were sitting at a table on Terazije Street in front of the confectioner’s, just next to Hotel Moscow and a shop called Tivar. Tivar sold suits and ready-made clothing but they also had a toy department. After ordering two portions of chestnut puree for Selma and Aleksandar several minutes ago, their father “remembered” that he had something to do and went into the shop. Aleksandar knew very well that his father had actually gone to buy some presents for them for Hanukkah but it was all a part of the exciting game. He never minded pretending that he didn’t know what it was all about.
A lazy and calm winter evening descended upon Belgrade. The green spires of Hotel Moscow, which housed the whispers of intellectuals and writers that would prophesize there, overlooked the buzz of the crowd outside passing by and sitting under neon signs. The noise of conversations and the steps of passers-by echoed across the wet pavement as trams on line 1, riding from Kalemegdan to Slavija, squeaked along the tracks. They would ring sharply ding, ding, ding, cutting the air and warning the pedestrians that always lingered in the same spot that they were crossing the street.
Aleksandar liked Hanukkah days, not only because of the presents but he also enjoyed the mysterious little flames of the candles they would light every evening-–one more each evening-–on their eight-branched candle holder, hanukkiah. In fact, a hanukkiah had nine branches but the candle in the very middle of it didn’t count, for it was merely used to light all other eight candles. During these days they were visited by uncle Julije, the aunt, Pavle and other relatives. The adults would play cards, while children would spin a dreidel, singing “nes gadol haya sham”. Although Pavle was no longer a child, he would still sit with the children spinning a dreidel. He was the best at it. Later uncle Julije and Aleksandar’s father would speak about brave Judah Maccabee, whose name means hammer in Hebrew. In ancient times, when terrible occupiers had forbidden Jews to be Jews, Judah fought. He fought for three years and liberated Jerusalem and the whole Jewish nation.
Aleksandar was moulding his chestnut puree into a hill in the glass dish, building the Temple at the top and picturing Judah Maccabee swinging his hammer bravely charging uphill to liberate the nation.
“Aleksandar, for god’s sake, don’t play with your food!”
“Sorry, mother,” Aleksandar awakened and put a huge bite of chestnut puree into his mouth.
At that moment, father came back.
“Well, I have done all that I had to. Have you finished?”
“We had such a nice chestnut puree,” Selma explained to father as they headed home down the pavement.
Ding, ding, ding, a tram greeted them.
Several days later, the children received their presents. Selma nicknamed her plush teddy bear Pepi, from that point on they became inseparable. Aleksandar got a beautiful red toy race car. It may not have been exactly the same model but to him it looked just like the Mercedes Benz W-154 M163, the winning car at the great Belgrade Grand Prix around Kalemegdan Park.